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10.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on securing the debate. I know what competition there is for such debates and the effort that he has had to make. All those present will join me in offering regrets and sympathies to his constituent, and also our thanks for the fact that some good has come of a terrible event, in the sense that my hon. Friend and others have been encouraged to campaign on this important matter.

My hon. Friend drew attention, in particular, to the devastating consequences of glass being used as a weapon when violent incidents occur on licensed premises. Before responding to the detail of his remarks, I should like to state clearly for the record this Government's absolute determination to tackle violent crime, including violence that occurs on or in the vicinity of licensed premises, which we know is often fuelled by heavy drinking.

We know that something like 90 per cent. of the adult population in this country drink alcohol, often in the social setting of a pub, club or other licensed premises. They do so lawfully, peacefully and without causing harm

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to themselves or to others. Although they rightly expect to be able to do so without the threat of violence or other antisocial behaviour, we know from a Portman Group survey, conducted about a year ago, that 14 per cent. of people have been the victim of violence in a pub at some time or other.

The British crime survey tells us that about 40 per cent. of all violent crime is alcohol-related, with as much as half of all stranger violence taking place in or around pubs and clubs. So as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we are not talking about a small minority of people who drink too much and get into fights. Far too many completely innocent people are affected by this problem.

The issue raised by my hon. Friend concerns drinking glasses and the harm they cause when used to inflict horrible facial injuries in a violent act. I agree that we must do all we can to reduce that potential but, at the same time, we must ensure that we are doing all we can to tackle the circumstances in which violence occurs in the first place. Our general approach is set out in the action plan to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder, which was launched by the Home Office in August 2000 and which explicitly recognises the part that glass can play in violent situations; some of the facts and figures that it quotes are well worth repeating. First, about 120,000 people suffer from facial injuries in violent circumstances each year in this country. In the vast majority of cases, either the victim or the assailant will have been drinking. About 5,000 of those incidents will involve what is commonly known as glassing, with devastating and often permanent consequences for the victim.

Research undertaken by the university of Wales suggests that bar glassware accounts for 10 per cent. of assault injuries in accident and emergency departments that lead to permanent, disfiguring facial scars. We believe that one response to that is the adoption of toughened drinking glasses in pubs and clubs. My hon. Friend mentioned safety glass, but the critical point is that toughened or safety glass alone will not prevent violence or injury, as he pointed out. Toughened glass can be up to six times more resistant to impact than conventional annealed glass, and breaks into smaller, blunt-edged pieces rather than long, sharp shards, so it significantly reduces the injuries that can be inflicted if the glass is used as a weapon. That is an undoubted benefit.

My hon. Friend spoke about the effect of time and wear on the properties of toughened glass. We are fully aware that it weakens far more quickly than conventional glass and has to be replaced more often. However, there are benefits to toughened glass, including its resistance to breakage and the manner in which it breaks. If my hon. Friend was trying to suggest that the way in which the glass breaks changes over time, I should be interested to know the facts, as we are not aware that it has such properties and would be happy to look into the matter.

Whatever the relative merits of toughened glass versus safety glass, the British Medical Journal noted in an editorial some years ago that

I am pleased that those words did not fall on deaf ears. In October 1997, the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association—now the British Beer and Pub Association—estimated that toughened glass was in use in about a third

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of public houses and recommended the more widespread adoption of toughened glass. Since then, those responsible for licensed premises have been making the switch to toughened pint and half-pint beer glasses—the glasses that are most often used in violent incidents—as they replace old stock. The British Beer and Pub Association now estimates that toughened beer glasses are used in about 90 per cent. of establishments, which is good progress.

As well as looking at toughened or safety glass, we need to look more fundamentally at the availability of glass and glass bottles, particularly in some of our busier city centre establishments, where they are more likely to cause problems. Like glasses, empty beer bottles can be used as weapons and it is worth looking at whether or not anything can be done about that. Options are available, including a refusal to provide drinks in bottles—a practice that is followed in some establishments—or the adoption of plastic drinking glasses to replace beer glasses entirely. The Government support such measures, but we know that there can be resistance to ideas like these. Drinking from bottles is very much in vogue, particularly among younger drinkers, but fashion can be changed over time if there is a willingness to do so on the part of those who may be able to influence it. We are keen to promote a dialogue on such issues with the drinks industry. We know that some manufacturers and retailers have experimented with the use of plastic beer bottles in pubs and clubs, which may offer a viable way forward.

Home Office Ministers meet with representatives of the alcohol industry from time to time. I last met industry representatives as recently as 3 December, and at that meeting I raised the issues that my hon. Friend raises in the House. We should like the greater use of plastic to be considered, as part of our forward programme for tackling alcohol-related crime and disorder.

In the individual establishment, there is a wide range of steps that can usefully be taken. Specifically in relation to glass, those include the education of customers, licensees and staff about the potential dangers arising from the careless use of glass; ensuring that bar staff are diligent in collecting up empty bottles and glasses within the establishment, thereby reducing the potential for accidental harm; and ensuring that licensees and door staff keep a tight rein on their bottles and glasses, preventing them from being removed from the premises where they might later cause injury or other problems to people leaving the premises.

Those are relatively simple steps, but we know that where they are followed—as they have been, for example, by establishments in Liverpool city centre—they can reduce the potential dangers considerably. We are keen to see those and similar measures adopted throughout the country.

Alongside those important measures, there is more work that can be done to ensure that licensed premises are safe and trouble-free places. Indeed, we must recognise that the overwhelming majority of them are. The licensed trade clearly has the primary responsibility for managing licensed premises properly, so as to prevent trouble occurring in the first place or see that it is nipped in the bud.

It has for many years been an offence for a licensee to permit disorder on his or her premises, and we have recently strengthened the law in section 32 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which came into effect on

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1 December, so that it is now an offence for anyone who works on licensed premises, not just the licensee, to permit drunkenness or violent behaviour on the premises.

Other key measures that we are raising with the industry include initiatives to encourage sensible drinking and to discourage binge drinking, which can often precede trouble on licensed premises. The recent phenomenon of "happy hour" and other retail initiatives encourage the wrong kind of drinking and do great damage to the reputation of the industry. We support initiatives such as Pubwatch schemes, backed up by exclusion orders, to keep known troublemakers out of licensed premises. We believe that the industry can do more to avoid irresponsible sales promotions, such as those that offer, for a fixed fee, the chance to "drink 'til you drop." Those encourage heavy drinking, which often leads on to trouble.

We know that other measures can be taken when all the local key partners work together to develop innovative solutions to local problems. That may provide some of the answers that my hon. Friend was looking for when he spoke about the need to reduce alcohol-related violence. In a number of areas, local licensees sit on the local crime and disorder partnership, which can help to a produce co-ordinated local programme such as the city centre safe initiative in Manchester, which offers a clear example of what can be achieved through effective partnership working.

The partnership in Manchester includes local sponsorship and has been able to set up a wide range of key initiatives, including late-night transport, targeted policing, pub and club-watch schemes and design and

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training initiatives to make the city centre a safer place for those who go there to enjoy an evening's entertainment. Any ideas that my hon. Friend wants to feed into the ongoing debate between the Home Office and the industry would be very welcome. I look forward to receiving those suggestions and to having a continuing dialogue with him.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and enabling us to raise its profile through this debate. I hope that I have been successful in demonstrating to him that we take these matters seriously and are seeking to work with the industry. We are receiving from the overwhelming majority of those involved in the industry a fairly positive a response to the sort of initiatives that we are asking them to consider. If we can persuade them, there is an awful lot that we can change in terms of the habits that have grown up in the retail sector and the alcohol trade.

We have seen some great changes with regard to the way in which the product itself is marketed. My hon. Friend referred to some of the high-alcohol drinks now available, which were not available some time ago. Some of the advertising associated with such drinks, aimed at young people and the very worst of habits, was effectively curtailed by guidance followed by the industry. We now need the sort of thing that has been done so successfully with regard to the product to be applied to the retailing of alcohol as well. I think that we could make great strides in reducing the sort of incidents that my hon. Friend so graphically brought to the House. I thank him for doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

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